By Sheela Lal – University of Missouri
Last week, I learned that I had been chosen to receive a Fulbright Grant to study film in Sri Lanka.
Before I talk about the future, I want to outline how I got to this stage. This is not meant to be some ego boost, but rather to break down any misconceptions about the process and encourage other awesome women to apply.
First off, what is this Fulbright I’m talking about, and why does it matter?
The Fulbright Program hosts a wide variety of fellowships designed to create space for cultural exchanged. Named after Senator J. William Fulbright, the fellowships allow students and scholars from all backgrounds to live in a different country and either teach or do research. It is handled through the State Department and is considered a very competitive fellowship. For our community, it is especially important because it recognizes the importance of all fields of study.
How did I learn about Fulbright?
This whole process started during the fall semester of 2010. I studied abroad with some phenomenal people, one of whom was a Boren Scholar. The Boren Scholarship is a State Department scholarship sponsoring students to study abroad to learn critical languages.
Anyway, my friend and I were talking about how she got her scholarship and what she may do after. She mentioned Fulbright, and it got me thinking. I know I wanted something spectacular to assist in my eventual graduate school applications. I knew I wanted to go back to South Asia in some capacity.
After you decided to apply, how did you go about selecting your country and research proposal?
I conducted some more research on the opportunities provided by the program, and settled on applying for a full grant (doing research), or the mtvU-Fulbright, which affords students the opportunity to research music trends in various countries. I would recommend going through the Fulbright website to get a better sense of the available options and the proposed research grants to see if they are right for you.
Like I said earlier, I wanted to go back to South Asia. I studied abroad in India and visited Sri Lanka. My ideal career would be working on South Asian foreign policy or writing about South Asian media. That helped narrow down the region.
A year later, it is hard to remember the trajectory of my thoughts, but I believe I thought I wanted to do something with film in India. I held onto this thought until the weekend of April 22nd. I was doing research for my radio show, and starting to give up, typed “Sri Lankan movie songs” into YouTube.
This video was the first option, and after watching it, I realized what I wanted to do with Fulbright.
I decided to propose researching Sri Lankan film.
What goes into the application? Is it hard?
For a full grant: three letters of recommendation, a 1 page single-spaced personal statement, a 2 page single-space statement of grant purpose, and affiliations with people in the host country.
The application, at its core, is not difficult. Finding professors or employees to write recommendations is not difficult. Cranking out a personal statement is not hard. Bullshitting a grant, meh, I’ve done harder. Googling for random people and reaching out to them is a whole facet of our generation, so check that off the list.
If I could count each draft of both statements, I would estimate that I wrote approximately 50 different drafts. Once I had stronger drafts, I transferred them onto Google Docs so my mother, fellowship advisor, and trusted friends could have access and edit them.
Before I left for the summer, I met up with two professors and explained to them what I thought my research was going to entail, so they could write recommendation letters reflecting that. What I was not expecting was them inquiring about my outside interests and academics, and wanting to get a more complete and complex understanding of who I was. If your recommenders are not looking for a more complete perspective on you as a student and potential cultural ambassador, I would recommend asking someone else.
Finding affiliations in my host country was one of my favorite parts of the application. Contacting people important in their field to explain my proposed project and asking if they would like to work with me, if by the off chance I received the fellowship, was incredibly humbling. Google and perseverance are your best friends.
For example, I found a professor at the University of Colombo who would be an asset to my project. I emailed him multiple times with the email address provided by the school, and constantly got bounced back emails. I found his LinkedIn profile and realized he was teaching at an university in Japan, so I went through that website and emailed one of his colleagues and finally got in touch with him. He was so impressed with my “research skills”, that it warmed him up to working with me.
What do I do after working on this vague application?
This is where your school plays a huge role. Your advisor will let you know the application timeline, and it may seem cumbersome, but is worth it.
I worked on mine for five months. After coming back to Missouri, I finished the last 25% of the editing and processes through my school. I hit submit sometime in early-mid October and did not look back.
When do you hear back?
THIS QUESTION IS THE WORST. You hear back from the first round, when your application is reviewed by the American Fulbright Commission, towards the end of January. From there, it’s up to the country.
If you got through this whole thing, I want to thank you for that, and if you decide this may be a good path for you, don’t hesitate to get email me!